Happy Days at the Young Vic

26 Jan

On Friday, I marked the end of my exams with a visit to the Young Vic in Southwark to watch Samuel Beckett’s play, ‘Happy Days’, starring the amazingly talented Juliet Stevenson. I’d seen the elusive posters all over the tube and I’ve always like the Young Vic, what with its reasonable ticket prices and delicious food in its renowned restaurant, The Cut (the sweet and spicy pulled pork burger is a winner, I’m told).

I don’t know much about Samuel Beckett but I knew the basic premise of a woman, Winnie, who is literally stuck in the earth up to her waist in some scorched wasteland. She whiles away the time with her various rituals and her husband, Willie, is fully mobile but detached and uninterested in his wife’s preambles. I’d seen the comments about the play – ‘a hilarious account of extinction’, The Telegraph – so I’d assumed it would be relatively light-hearted, so I was ill prepared for such a dark, melancholic portrayal of human nature. The visuals themselves were great and the sight of Winnie emerging from the ground was disturbing to say the least.
happy days

The majority of the play is Winnie talking out loud, trying to encourage her husband to interact with her but this happens very seldomly. Winnie comes across as a likeable woman, a woman who always tries to look on the bright side of life but whose optimistic sayings and positive phrases hide a depth of darkness and sorrow. Willie (played incredibly convincingly by David Beames), despite his mobility, comes across as a crawling, repulsive, almost subhuman creature in contrast with Winnie’s vivaciousness and need to feel alive. There is an almost Big Brother element to the play; an alarm (which literally made me jump out of my skin each time it sounded) that seemed to control Winnie who tried to order her day around these external constraints.

The play is separated into two acts, with the second act shorter and darker than the first. In the second act, Winnie is now buried in the earth up to her neck and can no longer conduct some of her previous rituals, such as brushing her hair or teeth. She is slowly being enveloped in the earth and Willie seems to have abandoned her. There is a sense of haunting despair in the second act, and I was constantly impressed with Stevenson’s ability to act only with her face. The oppressiveness of the earth and the futility of Winnie’s body lead her to become more introspective and reminisce about former times when Winnie and Willie first married and her loneliness becomes even more pronounced.

I found the play hauntingly moving, although I think some of the monologue was rather repetitious, which actually led to the woman in front of us falling asleep for most of the first act! I understand this only served to enhance Winnie’s aloneness -she is talking out loud, and using language as a form of reassurance and proof of her existence – but it sometimes lacked flow and movement. Overall, a haunting, fascinating exploration into human nature and our need for human relationships but definitely not an easy watch!

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